I’ll admit it — I’ve spent a large portion of my summer vacation cheering for the Michigan softball team. I had never even been to a game at Alumni Field before this season, but in recent weeks, I’ve found myself scheduling my life around softball games.

Eston Bond
Freshman Samantha Findlay is greeted by cheering teammates after her three-run home run put Michigan ahead of UCLA for good. (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)

As engaged as I have been all summer, something changed last week. My admiration for the Wolverines grew to an almost awe-inspiring level. I went from fan to fanatic.

To paraphrase a friend, Samantha Findlay became my hero.

Because in the top of the 10th inning, Findlay stepped to the plate and cemented her status as Michigan’s new superstar with her monstrous home run over the leftfield wall. How a freshman could remain calm and deliver a clutch performance in a moment of unbelievable pressure continues to amaze me.

It’s just another feather in Findlay’s already decorated cap. The freshman phenom has been knocking the ball out of the park all season. But she’s not the only Wolverine who has proven her talent and grit this year. Jennie Ritter showed incredible poise and determination as she pitched for what seemed like 24 straight hours in two games against Tennessee. Tiffany Haas has hit every pitch thrown her way all season. Nicole Motycka displayed such grace when she stepped aside as a pitcher, despite the countless accolades she had received, and excelled in her role as designated hitter.

And greatest of all, Jessica Merchant, Michigan’s all-time leading home run hitter, ran across the field after she nabbed the final out of the deciding game and tackled Findlay, the freshman who seems destined to threaten her home run crown. The character of this team is as great as its athletic achievements. And at the end of the day, the real story of this team is just how much of a team it is.

At the celebration to honor her team at Alumni Field last Thursday, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said this is the first team she has coached that openly talked about its desire to be national champions before the season even started. The players set a goal, worked unbelievably hard to realize it and never stopped believing in themselves, even when their backs were against the wall against Tennessee and UCLA.

I don’t know about you, but that’s all I could ever ask of a team — to keep fighting even when victory seemed improbable and to do it together.

Which brings me to the real reason Samantha Findlay is my hero — the home run of an answer she gave reporters after she hit that three-run homer to win the national title and the honor of Most Outstanding Player.

“I would take this team over any individual awards, because this team has meant the world to me.”

What I admire so much about the Michigan softball team is how every player seems to mean it when she says it’s all about the team. I have no doubt that being named MOP would have meant little to Findlay if she was given the honor in a Michigan loss.

There’s also a genuineness and a humility in how the players interact with coaches, reporters, the staff at Alumni Field — even crazy fans. When Ritter was introduced at the celebration last week, a twentysomething male in the crowd jumped up and down holding a sign that read ‘Ritter … will you marry me?” Rather than roll her eyes or exhibit any signs of being completely weirded out, Ritter turned around, smiled and snapped a picture of the guy with her camera. You just wouldn’t see that from the star of the football team after it won a national title.

Later that night, Merchant was asked to address the crowd. She thanked them for coming and then had to fight back tears when talking about her teammates, telling them and everyone there that just being part of the team was enough for her. It was one of the most honest expressions of emotion I have heard in a long time. The national title? Just a really large cherry on top of an even more impressive sundae.

But this championship is more than a cherry to me. I don’t get to be part of the team, but I do get to bask in its reflective glory. If the football team or the hockey team doesn’t win a national championship in the next two years, maybe I’ll look back on my college days with disappointment, sad because one of Michigan’s beloved programs with its grand tradition of excellence failed to add to its legacy while I was a student. But if I did, it would be ridiculous — because one of those programs did.

Over the past 14 seasons, the Michigan softball team has won 10 Big Ten titles — three more than the football team and one more than the nine regular-season CCHA crowns the hockey team has won. In that time, the Wolverines have also played in eight Women’s College World Series, compared to five Rose Bowl appearances and nine trips to the Frozen Four.

All the softball team lacked was a national championship — until it’s history-making win in Oklahoma City last week.

For all the reasons I listed and dozens more, you should embrace this team. The Wolverines I’m pretty sure they would be more than happy to share their title with every student on campus.

Because you might not believe it now, but it’s pretty cool to be part of any national championship — especially this one. And if it’s the only one I get, I’ll be proud to have been part of it.

Maybe in 20 years, you’ll look back and realize Samantha Findlay is your hero, too.

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